Editor’s note: On August 11, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced Kamala Harris as his running mate.
Former Vice President Joe Biden is about a week away from announcing the name of the woman who will be his vice presidential pick.
“I’m going to have a choice in the first week in August,” Biden told reporters after a Tuesday speech. “I promise I’ll let you know when I do.”
With a lengthy background interview process near completed, all that is left for the Biden campaign is for the critically important one-on-one interviews between Biden and his potential picks, although Biden said Tuesday he didn’t know whether those interviews would happen in person. Biden’s team has been slowly narrowing a lengthy list of candidates. There’s been increased pressure for Biden to pick a woman of color, and a number of his top candidates are Black women, like Sen. Kamala Harris and former National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
Picking a woman running mate is already a smart political choice; for months, Biden has opened up a vast lead with women voters. A New York Times analysis of a slew of May and June polls found Biden 25 points ahead of President Donald Trump with women. More recent polls from the Washington Post, CBS, and Pew have found Trump still trailing Biden among women voters, albeit by narrower margins. The Post poll found Trump slightly behind Biden among white women — a group he won by 9 points in 2016.
And another recent poll conducted by Democratic strategist Karen Finney and veteran pollster Cornell Belcher suggests Biden picking a Black woman could boost his standing particularly with younger voters — a group lacking enthusiasm for the 77-year-old former vice president.
There are a number of factors going into Biden’s important decision that go far beyond politics. As former President Barack Obama’s No. 2, Biden wants a vice president who is ideologically aligned with him and is someone he can work well with. A potential boon for the US senators on Biden’s list is that as a former longtime senator and Obama’s frequent deputy to Capitol Hill as vice president, Biden may be seeking someone with built-in relationships on the Hill. He also has expertise and an intense interest in foreign policy, meaning he may be seeking a candidate with those credentials.
As the oldest first-term president ever, if elected, Biden has also been clear he wants someone considerably younger and ready to assume the duties of the presidency should health problems or other unforeseen circumstances arise.
“The most important thing — and I’ve actually talked to Barack about this — the most important thing is that there has to be someone who, the day after they’re picked, is prepared to be president of the United States of America if something happened,” Biden said.
Do vice presidential picks actually matter politically?
There’s a prevailing idea that a vice presidential candidate can “deliver” their home state for the party. There are candidates on Biden’s list who hail from Midwestern states, as well as candidates who come from key Sun Belt states like Georgia and Florida. There are others who come from safe Democratic states like California, and at least one — Rice — who has little firsthand political experience.
The data supporting the idea of a home-state advantage in a general election is very slim, according to two political science professors — Chris Devine of the University of Dayton and Kyle Kopko of Elizabethtown College — who have been studying it for years.
“We’re pretty skeptical of the home-state advantage too,” Kopko told Vox in a recent interview. “You have to make a lot of assumptions that someone’s going to feel so strongly about their home state that’s going to override any partisan predispositions.”
Kopko and Devine analyzed election and voter data going back more than 100 years and found vice presidential candidates usually only make a difference to the outcome of a general election when they are either very popular or very polarizing.
The Wall Street Journal in 2016 also analyzed years of election data and found that even when a vice presidential pick was viewed favorably by voters in their party, a majority of voters said the VP pick ultimately had no measurable impact on their vote for president.
The importance of a vice presidential candidate has to do more with what the selection says about the presidential candidate and their judgment. A vice presidential pick sends an early signal about what a future administration might look like.
“It provides some info to voters about how this person would operate as a president, what does he or she stand for, what are going to be the priorities in office,” Devine said.
The fact that Biden is only considering women candidates for his running mate says more about where the Democratic Party is than it does about Biden’s personal convictions, Devine and Kopko said.
“Up to this point it’s seen as picking a woman would be a bold move, an unconventional move, a strong signal,” said Devine. “At this point, I think the script is flipped somewhat, and it would be a slight to have an all-male ticket.”
The real question now is whether Biden will pick a woman of color like Harris, Rice, Reps. Karen Bass and Val Demings, or Stacey Abrams; a progressive like Sen. Elizabeth Warren; or a figure from the Midwest like Sen. Tammy Baldwin or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
The veepstakes list, explained
Biden’s list is still pretty long; he previously said he hoped to narrow it to a “shortlist” of around 12 or so contenders. One young political star, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), isn’t on it. At 30 years old, she is still five years shy of the minimum age for a vice presidential candidate — not to mention more ideologically aligned with Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Here’s a list of potential contenders either mentioned by Biden himself or raised by his prominent allies and advisers.
California Sen. Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris tops many vice presidential lists, for good reason. Biden’s onetime competitor for the 2020 presidential nomination represents California in the US Senate; she was elected to that position after serving as the state’s attorney general. As a Black woman, she may appeal to the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituency, and she recently helped craft the Justice in Policing Act, the sweeping policing reform bill from House and Senate Democrats. However, Harris’s criminal justice record as a former prosecutor has not always translated into the easiest relationship with Black communities — especially with groups on the left.
Despite some tense moments between Harris and Biden early in the campaign (she scored a polling bump after criticizing his record on racial issues at the first presidential debate), the two seem to have reconciled — maybe. Politico recently reported that former Sen. Chris Dodd, who is helping lead Biden’s VP search committee, told a Biden donor that Harris “had no remorse” over her debate skirmish with Biden.
Still, Harris’s profile could be boosted by the fact that she’s a sitting senator with relationships on Capitol Hill, and that she’s an experienced campaigner who has already been subjected to media scrutiny during the Democratic primary. She also hails from blue California, a Senate seat that will be easy for Democrats to fill. Biden has showered Harris with praise and confirmed she is on the list early on.
“She is solid. She can be president someday herself. She can be the vice president,” he said in December. “She can go on to be a Supreme Court justice. She can be attorney general. I mean, she has enormous capability.”
Harris has also shown she’s not afraid to go toe-to-toe with members of the Trump administration or Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Having a vice presidential nominee who is a fighter can satisfy the base and leave Biden free to pitch himself as the commonsense unity candidate going up against Trump.
California Rep. Karen Bass
In recent weeks, Bass’s profile has risen considerably in the vice presidential search. Bass is the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a five-term member of Congress from Los Angeles. Before serving in Congress, she was in the California state Assembly for years, and was assembly speaker for two years.
Unlike many other names on Biden’s list, Bass is not known for seeking the spotlight. But her hardworking, behind-the-scenes approach on Capitol Hill has made her beloved within the House Democratic caucus and even gotten her approval from some House Republicans, including fellow Californian and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
“She’s very respectful of everybody, and she works with people extremely well, but she doesn’t create tension or respond to it,” said longtime California Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who has known Bass for years. “She’s focused on getting things done, and she doesn’t necessarily believe that’s a function of getting a lot of media attention or drawing attention to yourself. She’s much more into bringing people together or working together to get things done.”
Bass was a Biden pick for the recent policy task forces that included members picked by progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders. She’s viewed as someone who can keep the party united, and progressives who know Bass would view her selection as a win for the left.
Like Harris, Bass has played an integral role in crafting and introducing Democrats’ police reform bill, the Justice in Policing Act. With a background in health care before becoming a state and now national politician, she’s also become an important voice on coronavirus and its disproportionate impacts on communities of color. And like Biden, she has experienced the loss of a child; her daughter and son-in-law were both killed in a 2006 car accident.
One potential problem with Bass as a vice presidential pick was remarks she made about former Cuban leader Fidel Castro upon his death in 2016, when Bass referred to him as “comandante en jefe.” Some fear the term of respect could anger Cuban Americans in Florida, a key swing state in the 2020 general election.
Bass won’t necessarily be a flashy debater against Vice President Mike Pence, but if Biden wants to lean into his message of “healing” a fractured nation, Bass could be instrumental in delivering on that message.
Former national security adviser and UN Ambassador Susan Rice
Rice’s name has been generating speculation for months, which has only intensified recently.
At first glance, Rice may seem like an unusual pick. A career civil servant and expert in foreign policy, Rice isn’t necessarily the strongest choice in campaigning or political maneuvering. But in her corner is the fact that she already has something with Biden that he’s said he wants in his No. 2: a close working relationship. Biden and Rice worked together on a number of critical foreign matters in the Obama White House, where he was also a key figure in advising Obama on foreign policy after chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years.
Biden surrogates have confirmed Rice is being vetted by the campaign. But Biden must also consider the prospect that Republicans could once again dredge up their favorite issue, the US-led intervention in Libya and the resulting deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. Democrats may hope the issue will no longer be salient in the minds of swing voters, but Republicans may still hammer it nonetheless.
Still, having worked with Rice extensively on foreign policy issues he cares deeply about could be about as meaningful for Biden as any other factor he must weigh in his decision. After Trump’s chaotic presidency, the US will have to do a lot of rebuilding relationships with other foreign leaders in Europe and elsewhere.
Having a vice president who is steeped in these issues could free up Biden to focus on myriad domestic issues he will have to tackle as president.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer
Gretchen Whitmer’s political star is rising, and Biden is taking notice.
Whitmer is the 48-year-old Democratic governor of Michigan and served as the state Senate minority leader years before that. She’s a pragmatic, middle-of-the-road governor focused on health care and infrastructure whose 2018 campaign slogan was “fix the damn roads.”
Michigan is one of the states representing Democrats’ recent troubles (and possible redemption) in the Midwest, and Biden’s path to the White House runs through it. Whitmer could be a big asset in this endeavor. She worked to appeal to Michigan’s Republican and independent voters in the 2018 election, where she beat the state’s Republican then-attorney general Bill Schuette by 9 points. Whitmer won counties that went for Trump in 2016, showing her appeal across party lines.
“We are a state that goes back and forth; we are not a state that comfortably fits into one party or another,” she told Vox in a 2018 interview.
As Detroit has been hit hard during the coronavirus crisis, Whitmer has become a fixation of Trump’s as she’s attempted to secure more federal aid and health care equipment for her state. Whitmer is far from the only governor (Republican and Democrat alike) to call for more help, yet Trump reserved some of his worst insults for her. He called her “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” in a tweet and said he had a “big problem” with the “young ... woman governor” in Michigan.
Biden invited Whitmer onto his podcast in early April, where he called her “one of the most talented people in the country” and a “friend.” In addition to talking about the challenges facing the country, the two seem to have an affinity for each other; Whitmer recounted how Biden shared Fig Newtons with her and her daughter during a campaign stop.
Whitmer seems to have a lot of what Biden is looking for in a running mate, although she has spent fewer years in higher office than some other contenders. The larger question might be if she’d accept (she has already said “it’s not going to be me”), or if Democrats would be willing to jeopardize a key governor’s seat.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
If Biden wants to do some serious outreach to progressives, Elizabeth Warren is the obvious choice.
Warren’s campaign was the tireless policy machine of 2020, churning out plans for everything from pandemic preparedness to debt-free college. Biden recently backed a Warren plan that allows student debt to be canceled during bankruptcy — a notable move, given a famous policy disagreement between the two on a 2005 bankruptcy bill. He also mused to Axios in December that while he would add Warren to his VP list, “The question is would she add me made to her list.”
Warren may be the choice for uniting the ideological wings of the party, and picking her would certainly say something about where a Biden administration would be willing to go policy-wise. But electorally, it might make more sense to go with a woman of color, or a moderate from the Midwest, rather than an unapologetic liberal Democrat representing Massachusetts.
And then there’s the question of whether Warren would actually want the vice presidential job. As Vox’s Emily Stewart wrote, Warren’s time setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau demonstrated her executive leadership and knack for “pulling administrative levers.”
With this in mind, Warren actually might be more at home — and have more of an impact — as a Cabinet pick like secretary of Treasury or education, where she could actually enact a chunk of her broad regulatory agenda.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin
The two-term senator from Wisconsin checks a whole lot of boxes. She made history in 2012 as the first openly gay senator. And even as Republicans spent millions to try to oust her in 2018, she cruised to reelection, beating her Republican challenger by 11 points.
Wisconsin Republicans were hoping to prove the state was red once and for all in 2018, as Vox’s Dylan Scott wrote. Instead, Baldwin hung on and former Gov. Scott Walker (R) lost to Democrat Tony Evers, showing signs of life for the Democratic Party there. Baldwin ran — and won — on the issue of health care. Her fight in the Senate to protect those with preexisting conditions is personal; she has a preexisting condition from childhood.
In addition to proving her staying power in a Midwestern swing state, Baldwin has serious progressive bona fides, even if they don’t get as much attention as Warren’s or Sanders’s credentials. Like Michigan, Wisconsin is crucial for Biden to win, and Baldwin could give him a boost.
But taking her away from the Senate could be risky for Democrats; Wisconsin voters will by no means automatically elect another Democrat to take her place.
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth
There’s been a lot of push and pull between a woman of color and a woman from the Midwest — Tammy Duckworth is both.
A Thai American who made history as the first US senator to give birth while holding office (and then spoke to the challenges of taking maternity leave while holding that office), Duckworth is helping change one of America’s oldest institutions. She cast a vote in 2018 while holding her newborn baby.
Duckworth has an impressive résumé; she’s a military veteran who flew Black Hawk helicopters in Iraq and had a double leg amputation after her helicopter went down.
The senator from Illinois is also unapologetically moderate. In the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary win in 2018, Duckworth questioned whether that brand of progressivism could be replicated in more moderate parts of the country.
“I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx.” Duckworth said, adding, “I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest, and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”
Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams
Abrams, a voting rights activist who narrowly lost a bid for Georgia’s governorship in 2018, has been generating VP speculation for some time.
She came within 1.4 points of being America’s first Black woman governor in 2018, but now that 2020 is here and there are two Senate races in her home state of Georgia, she’s showing few signs of wanting to run in either one. Even with her relative lack of experience in higher office, she’s very popular with Black women. A March poll done by She the People, an organization for and by women of color, found Abrams was the clear first choice among its respondents — even over Harris.
As Abrams continues her work on the issue of expanding voting rights for voters of color, she has very publicly been making a case for herself to be the vice president in TV interviews and podcast appearances. Even so, Abrams recently said she has not yet been contacted by the Biden campaign.
“I would be honored to be on the campaign trail as a running mate,” Abrams recently told Pod Save America. “That is a process you can’t campaign for and I’m not campaigning for.”
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham
In the same vein, Biden may also want to take a look at New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the first Democratic Latina governor in the US. Before she was elected governor in 2018, Lujan Grisham was a member of Congress, serving as the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Even though New Mexico is no longer considered a swing state, the governor’s mansion was under Republican control for eight years. Lujan Grisham flipped it from red to blue. She also led the influential Congressional Hispanic Caucus during the Trump administration’s family separation policy and was a loud voice against the administration’s treatment of migrants.
“We’re doing everything we can to stop the president and Homeland Security from continuing to enact pain using the terminology for zero tolerance for anybody breaking the law,” Lujan Grisham told the Associated Press in June 2018.
She has proved she’s electable in her home state, but it might be tough to introduce her to the rest of the country.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms
One of Biden’s earliest supporters, Bottoms has stuck with the former vice president from the beginning. She endorsed him after the first Democratic debate, rather than throwing her support behind Harris or Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the two Black candidates running at the time.
Her reasoning was a belief that Biden was best positioned to beat Trump in a general election. Even as Biden was faltering in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, Bottoms was one of the main surrogates campaigning for him in South Carolina, the state where he staged his comeback. Bottoms’s city of Atlanta has been one of the epicenters of protests against police brutality, especially after police shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot. Bottoms has vowed police reforms in the Atlanta Police Department, including limiting the amount of force officers can use.
One of Biden’s top allies, Jim Clyburn, has been pushing Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate for months. And Clyburn made it clear early that he thinks Bottoms could be the woman for the job.
“There is a young lady right there in Georgia who I think would make a tremendous VP candidate, and that’s the mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms,” Clyburn told the Financial Times in a recent interview.
Florida Rep. Val Demings
Demings has developed a high profile in Congress in a relatively short time. She was one of the impeachment managers selected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to present the case against President Trump to the US Senate.
Before she was a member of Congress, Demings had a background in law enforcement. She was the first woman chief of police in Orlando, Florida. Even though she’s not as well known as some other names on this list, the fact that she hails from the Orlando area is politically important — the I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando is a competitive part of a key swing state Democrats would like to win back in 2020.
Biden confirmed Demings was on his shortlist in a May interview, calling her “a very competent, very capable person.”
Demings’s role in the impeachment trial lends her some name recognition, but impeachment could be ripe for Republican attacks; Democrats might avoid wading into that area and instead focus on issues like health care. Demings has said she’d be up to take the slot if Biden asked her.
“I love being a member of Congress,” Demings recently told Florida TV station WFTV-9. “But if asked, I would consider it an honor.”
Former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano
Napolitano’s name has been floating around a bit — albeit much less than some other more high-profile contenders. Napolitano served as Arizona governor from 2003 to 2009 before making the transition to Barack Obama’s Cabinet, working as the director of the Homeland Security Department from 2009 to 2013. Napolitano hasn’t been in office for years, but she has valuable national security experience and led a red state as a Democrat in the mid-2000s.
While there’s been a lot of talk about the importance of Midwestern swing states in the 2020 election, Arizona is just as significant. It used to be reliably Republican, but it is diversifying and Democrats had some notable success in a key 2018 Senate race. They could pick up a second Senate seat as well this year, and election forecasters say Arizona will likely be key to Biden’s Electoral College math in November. Napolitano is an unknown for a lot of people outside the state, but if Biden is serious about winning there, she could be an asset.